Friday, November 27, 2015

Step Into a Wider World: Favorite Star Wars Tales Stories

Dark Horse presented a lot of different comics over the many years it had the Star Wars license. Some are seminal and important works to the EU (Dark Empire, Tales of the Jedi), and some are always going to be on my list of favorite Star Wars stories (Rogue Squadron, Tag & Bink, pretty much anything John Ostrander wrote). But there's a special place for the Star Wars Tales anthology. It was a quarterly anthology series that ran for twenty four issues, featured some stories that were intended to be in continuity and some that were clearly outside it, and allowed a lot of Dark Horse's regular Star Wars creators to do shorts featuring side characters, while other stories had top tier creators doing their first or only Star Wars stories.

I had wanted to do a feature on my favorite stories from this series, and I originally was going to do ten, but found there were just too many, so instead I'm going to talk about twenty stories. Each entry will be short, so don't worry it won't take you all day to read this. I'm also focusing on issues one to twenty, since the editor changed after issue twenty and the series started to be more in continuity Star Wars stories, more tied into the bigger publishing plan.

Mara Jade: A Night on the Town (Star Wars Tales #1)- What better way could you imagine kicking off your brand new Star Wars anthology than with a story from the man who jumpstarted Star Wars publishing? Set early in her known continuity, "A Night on the Town" is a tale of Emperor's Hand and future wife of Luke Skywalker, Mara Jade, one of the best female characters in or out of Star Wars continuity. Created by Timothy Zahn for his novel Heir to the Empire, Mara is a tough, smart, and powerful character, and she shows it here, dealing with crooked Imperials, Rebels, specifically tactical genius Crix Madine (for those of you not big Star Wars people, he's the bearded guy leading the briefing with Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar in Return of the Jedi). Zahn wrote a lot of Mara shorts for various Star Wars publications, and this one is one of my favorites, full of action and espionage, the hallmarks of a great Mara story.

Skippy the Jedi Droid (Star Wars Tales #1)- One of the clearly non-canon stories, "Skippy the Jedi Droid" tells the tale of a force sensitive droid on Tatooine, as he makes it through various trials and travails to be on the Lars farm and chooses to blow his own motivator, knowing through the Force that it is important Luke Skywalker takes R2-D2 instead. It's a silly story, full of quirky humor and lots of visual gags (like Bender, Crow, and Tome Servo in he Jawa sandcrwaler) and inside jokes, along with a comment about how the gravity of dual suns would theoretically make any planet near it uninhabitable. If you're a reader of this blog, and have read some of my recommendations, that type of humor might sound familiar, as this is the only Star Wars story ever written by one of my favorite writers, Incredible Hulk and X-Factor legend Peter David.

Extinction (Star Wars Tales #1-2)- One of the few multi part stories in Star Wars Tales, "Exctinction" is the tale of Darth Vader hunting down one of the last Jedi, the Dark Woman, a character introduced in the monthly Star Wars title that would one day be renamed Republic. Featuring appearances by Palpatine and Mara Jade, the battle between Vader and the Dark Woman is gorgeously drawn by Claudio Castellini, and Ron Marz writes a great story, one that ends with a Force Ghist Dark Woman confronting Vader for a memorable exchange.

Deal with a Demon (Star Wars Tales #3) & Bad Business (Star Wars Tales #8)- Before their was Hondo Ohnaka, there was Vilmarh Grahrk. If you're more familiar with Star Wars in other media, TV specifically, you might know Hondo as the roguish pirate with a soft spot for Jedi. A similar character was created by John Ostrander, Vilmarh Grahrk, Villie for short, who was one of the major supporting characters in the adventures of Quinlan Vos, a character you'll be heroing about a few more times before the month is out. Ostrander, along with his regular collaborator Jan Duursema on the first, wrote two Villie shorts for Tales, both involving Villie at his most scoundrely, helping princesses for the money. But as opposed to another famous scoundrel who fell for the princess, Villie is really just in it for the money. These stories do show how much Villie will eventually change thanks to his interactions with Vos, but they're mostly great comedy, with Villie finding his way in and out of all sorts of problems in the most selfish way he can, always maintaining that Villie ego.

A Death Star is Born (Star Wars Tales #5) and Force Fiction (Star Wars Tales #7)- Kevin Rubio is probably best known in Star Wars fandom as the man who wrote and directed the pioneering fan film Troops, but he also wrote some great Star Wars comics, all drawn by Lucas Marangon. Two of those are the tales "A Death Star is Born" and "Force Fiction." Two more out of continuity comedies, as pretty much all of Rubio's works are, these two do a great job of mixing established character and conuity with comedy. "A Death Star is Born" show Grand Moff Tarkin and some of his design team bringing the Death Star plans to the Emperor, where all of the somewhat odd quirks of its construction that allow for an easy escape in A New Hope are called out, and the rivalry between Vader and Tarkin is on display for a great choking joke. "Force Fiction" places Yoda and Mace Windu in a diner discussing whether or not to train Anakin Skywalker. It's obviously a parody of the diner scene in Pulp Fiction, which of course also starred Samuel L. Jackson, and features some very funny dialogue along with all sorts of cameos in the diner patrons, but also features some very incisive dialogue about the nature of the prophecy about the Chosen One bringing balance to the force.

Jedi Chef (Star Wars Tales #7)- One more straight up comedy, and then some more serious fare, I swear! Starring Jedi Council members Plo Koon and Micah Giett (Giett is a comics creation, who was on the cou ncil until shortly before Episode I), it sees the two Jedi trying to save a famous chef from a Hutt, and it turns into a cook off! Parodying the then very hot TV show Iron Chef, the story sees Giett in a competition to beat Corpo the Hutt's cook droid in a battle of the chefs. I loved Iron Chef, so the story stuck in my head, and features some great gags as the not too great chef Giett tries to prepare his dish while Koon sabotages the droid's meal at every turn. Just plain fun.

Outbid But Never Outgunned (Star Wars Tales #7)- For some, what I'm about to say is blasphemy: I've never been a big fan of Boba Fett. He's not a bad character, but I feel he gets overused, when there are any number of other interesting bounty hunters in Star Wars. "Outbid But Never Outgunned" however is a great story and might be my favorite Fett story. In it, Fett finds himself being blackmailed by a businessman who says he has something that Feet wants, and if Fett doesn't pay up, it goes to the highest bidder. Fett goes on his usual ruthless path to take out the man blackmailing him, and is joined by another bounty hunter, a woman named Sintas Vel, with whom Fett clearly has history. Drawn by Mike Deodata, his first Star Wars work years before his current work on Vader Down, it's a stunningly beautiful action story, and ends with a revelation about Fett that would become hugely important in the later novel series Legacy of the Force.

The Secret Tales of Luke's Hand! (Star Wars Tales #8)- Ok, maybe one more straight up comedy. When young Anakin Solo, Han and Leia's youngest son, is having a hard time sleeping, Han goes in to ask him what's wrong, and he asks why Uncle Luke always wears a glove. When Han explains that Luke lost his hand in a fight with Darth Vader, he begins to conjure a story of the hand wandering the galaxy, fighting Vader's hand and the Emperor's foot. I've written before that I'm an uncle to two young nieces, and though they're growing now, when they were little they loved to hear me tell them stories made up on the fly, usually starring Felix, my cat at the time, who in the stories was a secret agent (in real life he was a lump of fur), so this one touches a chord for me. It's also charming to see Han Solo in such a domestic scene, not being chased through the galaxy but just being a dad.

Resurrection (Star Wars Tales #9)- The only story that takes up nearly an entire issue and it deserves every page. Long before The Clone Wars cartoon, when the idea of a resurrected Darth Maul was just fan talk, this story came out and pitted Maul against Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel for the ages. Resurrected by Prophets of the Dark Side, agents of the Emperor, Maul has been set to replace Vader, as the Prophets feel Vader is not worthy of being Palpatine's apprentice. Maul taunts Vader, saying he is unworthy, that a former Jedi could never understand the purity of hate it means to be a Sith. And when Vader falls before Maul (SPOILERS if you don't want to know exactly how this ends), Vader stabs himself with his lightsaber to reach his opponent, and as Maul dies, asks Vader what he could hate enough to give him the power to defeat Maul. Vader's reply is only one word: "Myself." Released before Episodes II and III, Ron Marz's statement of Vader's feelings are prescient, and the art from Rick Leonardi, who would go on to draw the General Grievous miniseries and one of the Vader solo miniseries, is some of the best of his long career.

The Princess Leia Diaries (Star Wars Tales #11)- Riffing on The Princess Diaries, this story tells of a young Princess Leia on trips with her adoptive father, Bail Organa, and her time in the Imperial Court as a young girl. It's narrated diary style by Leia, naturally, and shows that she was always the rebellious, stubborn kid with the tough streak we know from the movies. It's a good story, but why does it make this list? Because in it, Leia drops a water balloon on the head of Grand Moff Tarkin. It's a silly moment, but one that, for some reason, completely stuck in my memory. It's also the first of two Leia stories by Jason Hall on this list, but I didn't group them like some of the others because the two are tonally very different. The second will appear later on the list, so keep reading.

Ghost (Star Wars Tales #11)- "Ghost" is pretty much everything I would want from a Star Wars Tales story. It is written and drawn by Jan Duursema, who worked with John Ostrander as artist for most of his work and co-plotter for Dawn of the Jedi. It features a young Han Solo on a treasure hunt. There aren't a lot of comics that feature Han in his pre-Chewbacca days, and while this one's canonicity is ambiguous, even in the new Legends concept, it's a great story. Its full of action as young Han is on a treasure hunt, and he runs across a being very familiar to fans of Star Wars comics: Ostrander and Duursema's greatest Jedi creation, Quinlan Vos. The meeting between two favorite characters is a treat, and add in some of my favorite Duursema art, how well she captures both a slightly older Quin and a much younger Han, and you have a real highlight of a story.

Sandstorm (Star Wars Tales #15)- I'm following up the previous story, featuring a young Han Solo, with a story about a young Luke Skywalker. After a fight with Uncle Owen about not knowing anything about his father, young Luke runs away and gets caught in a sandstorm, where he meets another young Tatooine orphan, a boy called Annie. As the two travel through the storm, they encounter all the horrors of Tatooine: womp rats, sand people, and even a Krayt Dragon. Readers knowing who Annie is, whether a manifestation of the Force trying to teach Luke something, or something Luke summoned from the Force himself, get to see exactly how similar young Luke was to his father, how hungry for a greater universe. And seeing Owen's reaction when he hears of what happened, I felt a little more sympathetic to the gruff old moisture farmer who was trying to keep his nephew on the farm for one more season.

The Other (Star Wars Tales #16)- If someone asked me for a story that was a great intersection between the Star Wars novels and the comics, I would choose "The Other." The time between Return of the Jedi and the Legacy comics is a period with comparatively few comic stories; yes Dark Empire and Crimson Empire are in there, as are the Rogue Squadron comics, but other than those and a few mini-series, most comics take place in the distant past, the prequel era, or during the classic trilogy, and because of this, there aren't a lot that directly address continuity. "The Other" is the second Princess Leia tale by Jason Hall, and tells a story of an older Leia, who saves her children from an Imperial assassination team using her then burgeoning Force abilities with ruthless precision. But when she sees her own refelction, and sees a vision of herself as another Darth Vader, she stops. Maybe it's because Luke had training from full Jedi, or maybe because of his own brushes with the Dark Side, Luke rarely seemed to consider his own fall. But Leia, in this story and in the later novel, Tatooine Ghost, really considers what it might mean for her, or her children, to bow to the Skywalker legacy. It explains why Leia stopped training to be a Jedi, why she sent her children away, in a far more satisfactory way than any novel ever did, and unwraps another facet of one of Star Wars most loved characters.

Heart of Darkness (Star Wars Tales #16)- "Heart of Darkness" is an interesting story in that its a continuity band-aid that proves to be a great story in its own right. Written and painted by Paul Lee, with art assists by Brian Horton, it tells the story of Minch, a member of Yoda's species, chasing a dark Jedi onto a swamp planet and defeating him in a cave. This story is actually drawn from Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, and featured Yoda slaying the Dark Jedi and inadvertently creating the cave that Luke would one day make his vision quest in on Dagobah, but the script for Revenge of the Sith established that Yoda had never been to Dagobah before, so Lee crated a new member of his species (who shares a name with one of Yoda's names in early drafts of Empire Strikes Back), and puts him through the ringer, having him fight the Dark Jedi and have his own brush with the Dark Side. Beautifully drawn, it's a striking story that moves beyond what felt like a story simply there to fix a hole in continuity to an exciting piece of the history of the Star Wars universe.

Revenents (Star Wars Tales #18)- Star Wars doesn't tend to do thrillers or horror stories. There are a few here and there, but generally, the Star Wars galaxy sticks to mash-ups of fantasy, sci-fi, and Westerns. One of the better exceptions to this rule is the thriller "Revenants," where a shuttle Han Solo is flying is shot down over the junk world of Raxus Prime by Slave 1, and Solo spends weeks hunted across the world by a seemingly unkillable Boba Fett. Han fights his way across the moon using is wits and making jury rigged weapons to help him survive. Han Solo might be down, but he's never out, even against the character who might just be considered his archenemy The story ends with a nice twist, and while at the time it seemed at odds with the current events in the New Jedi Order series of novels, it was eventually referenced in a cool way in a novella by Karen Traviss.

The Lost Lightsaber (Star Wars Tales #19)- While I often like to maintain my personal picture of what characters from novels look like, it's always nice to see one make their first appearance in a comic. This story, which features a young Jedi attempting to recover the lightsaber of Darth Vader, which has been stolen by Dark Side adepts to make a powerful weapon of the Dark Side is the only comic appearance by Ben Skywalker, son of Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade. It's a fun story, but it always sticks in my head for that reason, as Ben was a character who didn't have a lot of personality at the time (he was developed in later novels in the Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi series)

Into the Great Unknown (Star Wars Tales #19)- "Into the Great Unknown" is another story like "Resurrection" that could really only happen in comics or animation, one of those fan wish fulfillment stories, outside of continuity, although this one has a darker ending than most fans would expect. Han and Chewie are piloting the Falcon and forced to make a blind hyperspace jump, crashing on a planet where Han is sadly killed by natives. Over a century later, an archaeologist arrives, looking into tales of a great beast, clearly referring to Chewbacca. The archaeologist finds Han's corpse and finds it oddly familiar. The archaeologist is referred to as Dr. Jones, and its clear that this is Indiana Jones, making this the only sanctioned Star War/Indiana Jones crossover, although boy that's a downer of an ending. Still, it does stick in the memory.

Melvin Fett (Star Wars Tales #20)- If I could recommend any one issue of a Star Wars comic to a comic fan who doesn't do licensed comics, or mainstream comics in general, it would be Star Wars Tales #20. The issue features stories by various important independent creators, including Gilbert Hernandez, Jason, Peter Bagge, Tony Millionaire, and a couple favorties of mine, Rick Geary, of the Treasury of Victorian Murder series, and creator of Monkey Vs. Robot, James Kolchaka. While any of these odd and eclectic stories could make this list, and I waffled between Geary and Kolchaka for my pic, I went with Kolchaka's "Melvin Fett" about Boba's incompetent cousin, who accepts a bounty to kill Jar-Jar Binks, and winds up instead shooting a Jar-Jar sippy cup. None of these stories are what you'd expect from Star Wars, but all of them have the flair of their creators, and show that the world of Star Wars is wide enough for all sort of interpretations from "A certain point of view."

So, I'm curious, my fellow Star Wars fans: What are your favorite stories from Star Wars Tales? Do they crossover with mine? Do you think I'm out of my mind for picking one of these stories? You can reply here, on Twitter @mattlaz1013, or on The Matt Signal Facebook page. I'd love to hear your opinions.

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